The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 12, 2013

Joe Hadsall: Catching up on movies yields mixed results

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — Finally, The Lovely Paula and I were able to catch up recently with two movies we regretted not seeing in theaters: "Les Miserables" and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Both movies were released on Blu-ray a few weekends ago, and I splurged on both -- mainly because of my guilt at not seeing them on the big screen.

Seriously, last December offered an incredible month of movies, including those two, "Django Unchained" and "Argo," and we missed all of them. Fail.

Better late than never, however.

According to a meme that TLP found, "Les Miserables" is French for "everyone croaks."

There's not a lot of happiness in the movie. Yet for how sad it is, the themes of redemption are so unbelievably powerful. I choked up a few times during the movie, and I've seen the stage show twice.

What made the movie so powerful to me was how filmmakers could get up close and personal; how the viewer went from watching the characters far away on a stage to right in front of their faces.

The movie featured close-ups of key characters during emotional songs, such as Jean Valjean and Eponine. The closeness to their faces and the subdued singing voices made for intense, intimate moments.

Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine. When she sings "I Dreamed a Dream," she demonstrated exactly why she deserved that Oscar.

Something interesting I learned during the special features, however: The actors actually sang while acting their parts. Every other musical movie -- "Sweeney Todd," "Mamma Mia," "The Phantom of the Opera" -- had their actors sing in a studio, then lip-synch during their on-set performances.

Not "Les Mis" -- the actors sang while on set to the accompaniment of a piano off-screen. Directors added the orchestra around what the actors sang.

Also, the movie involved a ton of Broadway's original cast, including C.T. Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original Broadway and West End runs. He plays the Bishop of Digne in the movie. Samantha Barks, who sang Eponine for a concert version, played her in the movie and gives a heartbreaking performance.

TLP and I were worn out after watching it. Beautiful, beautiful movie.

"Les Mis" was everything I hoped for. "The Hobbit," not so much.

From the beginning, I have disagreed with the notion of stringing out "The Hobbit" for three movies. J.R.R. Tolkien's first story of Middle Earth is not as meaty or lengthy as his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, so the potential for unnecessary fluff is high.

"An Unexpected Journey" covers Bilbo's trip with the dwarves, their capture by goblins and ends basically with his meeting Gollum and discovering the ring. A good 45 minutes is spent in his hobbit house.

Where "Lord of the Rings" felt truly epic, "The Hobbit" feels like a bonus feature for fans, partly because the first trilogy packed in so much and chose its moments carefully. It feels as strung out as an old cassette and is about as interesting as the type of cassette that someone would throw out a car window.

And the future of the franchise over the next two movies looks bleak. There is no way the fight between Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies can approach the drama, majesty and legend of the destruction of the One Ring and the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

Consider: There is so much in the "Lord of the Rings" that director Peter Jackson took a lot of heat for what he left out -- Tom Bombadil and Saruman's invasion of the Shire, for instance. And Jackson couldn't fit those things in extended, three-hour versions of each movie.

"The Hobbit" has the opposite problem: 150 minutes is too long for the first third of the book. It feels contrived and fluffy. And disappointing.